Drawing Conclusions on the Wall

A Review of On the Ground:An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S.

There were two types of media my high school friends and I truly looked forward to on our colonial outpost in what was then West Germany. The first was the appearance in the post exchange of the latest album from our favorite band. The other was when one of us received the latest issue of an underground paper from the US. Since we came from towns and cities all over the nation those of us that were so inclined could read undergrounds from all over the nation. I always had a few hidden away in my bedroom to peruse: Quicksilver Times, Kaleidoscope, Berkeley Tribe and Barb, Georgia Straight from Vancouver, BC, and so on. These papers served a multitude of purposes. Like those record albums mentioned above, they kept us abreast of what was going on back in the States culturally (counterculture, that is), politically, and otherwise. In addition, they helped us frame our understanding of our situation in an overseas US military community. They also inspired us to create our own media and protests.

There have been a number of books written about this underground press. The granddaddy of them all is most certainly Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press by retired Northwestern University professor Abe Peck, who began his journalism career as a member of Chicago’s groundbreaking Seed. More recent endeavors include John McMillan’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America and the just-released On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. Edited by Sean Stewart, On the Ground is essentially an oral history that features the recollections of several people that were involved with underground papers from around the United States. Unlike McMillan’s work which runs toward the academic side of things, Stewart’s text has a populist feel to it. The recollections are straight from the speakers’ mouths; sometimes angry, sometimes humorous and always honest.

The best part of the book are the graphics. As I read through the memories of the folks Stewart spoke with for On the Ground I was repeatedly surprised at how well I remembered various illustrations and photographs Stewart reprinted throughout the text. Like the papers his interviewees are remembering, the most striking thing about On the Ground is the layout. Even though I know the book was composed on a computer screen, the book looks as if it were laid out via the old cut and paste method by folks possibly stoned on weed and a day or two with minimal sleep–just like many issues of almost every paper Stewart discusses.

Being in the Movement and the counterculture was generally an upbeat experience. So was being in the Sixties underground media. Most folks were young and full of hope and those that were not necessarily young in years were where it counted–in their approach to life. Reporters did not cover stories as much as they took part in them and then wrote about it afterward. As Abe Peck says about working at The Seed: “We were very determined and unless something terrible happened–like [the murder of] Fred Hampton–up, just pretty upbeat.” Politics was omnipresent, whether it was at a very political paper like The Black Panther or a paper that had a more countercultural bent like The LA Free Press. This was because, as far as the authorities were concerned, everyone involved with the underground press–writers, printers, cartoonists, sellers and readers–were on the wrong side of the law and had to be watched. Sometimes, they were dealt with by methods legal and otherwise. This meant things like the stores selling papers being harassed by police and vigilantes; the withdrawal of advertising because of pressure from the FBI and other agencies; and assaults against persons involved by cops and others.

When Richard Nixon took over the White House in 1969 the repression of the Movement and counterculture intensified. Naturally, this meant that the media that represented these phenomena would be under greater attack. Black Panther papers were destroyed enroute to cities across the country and even to military bases overseas. Storefronts that newspapers worked out of were firebombed by vigilantes and shot at by police. Obscenity charges were brought against newspapers that then tied up the papers’ funds in court costs. High school underground press writers were thrown out of school and administrators suspended students selling and reading those papers. Although the reasons given for the expulsions usually had to do with attendance and other disciplinary infractions, the reality was that high school disciplinarians resented the threat to their authority and power. A friend of mine in Montgomery County, Maryland was suspended from the progressive John F. Kennedy High School for selling The Washington Free Press on campus. The issue in question featured a cartoon of a judge that had been involved in efforts to shut down the paper. The drawing showed the judge masturbating. Underneath the drawing was the phrase (made popular by the TV show Laugh-In) “here com da judge.” The cartoon was a response to a series of rulings made by the judge forbidding the distribution of the Free Press on high school grounds. These rulings and the school board decisions that preceded them were being challenged by the ACLU.

As the 1960s turned over into the 1970s, many folks that had been on the front lines began to retreat for the sake of their sanity. Others just fell into the trap of individualism and self-satisfaction–an easy trap to fall into in the US of A. By 1974 or thereabouts, the curse of identity politics had taken over much of the political discourse on the left and effectively limited the reach of the Movement as people separated according to their gender, sexuality, and ethnic origins. Intentionally or not, this trend hastened the demise of the underground press and the movements it was a part of. However, its legacy remains. There are many websites and even some print journals that are more than observers of the protests and movements they report on. Journalist Alice Embree notes that “The underground press was the connective tissue; it spread the news …” When the papers began to fail, the connectiveness was lessened. The underground press was a vital part of what happened in the sixties. Sean Stewart’s wonderfully edited text On the Ground lets the reader know how and why that remains true. The striking graphics and compelling recollections in this text are at once a popular history and an inspiration.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.